“I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy.”
― Kahlil Gibran
What is it that drives us to put our hands in our pocket to donate to a worthy cause or to saddle up in Lycra and put ourselves at sometimes not inconsiderate discomfort to raise funds for a charitable organisation?
That good deed makes us feel good about ourselves and while we can sometimes choose to be more selfish in our actions or behaviour, it is because we are hardwired to be social and have a developed the capacity for what is sometimes called “pro-social spending”.
Engaging in any activity that our brain finds rewarding, especially the anticipation of reward such as seeing the smile on a child’s face when opening a present or the expression of gratitude when donating a gift of food, clothes or toiletries to a person in need, leads to that happy extra squirt of dopamine that floods our brain and motivates us to repeat that activity
Helping others is something many of us do naturally and was demonstrated by Warneken and Tomasello in their studies of very young children to be well developed even by the age of eighteen months
As a child growing up in the UK there were two annual fundraising events I always looked forward to. The first was the annual Lifeboat appeal that my Mum always took part in. I never quite understood why lifeboats, though it may have had something to do with a great aunt who lived in Tenby, Wales who had some sort of connection with the local lifeboat association. The paper lifeboat pins were really funky and I thoroughly enjoyed shaking my Lifeboat shaped collection box to encourage all and sundry to pop a couple of coins through the slot.
The second event was the Rotary Christmas Tree. Each year a freshly cut tree bedecked with tinsel and baubles was loaded onto the back of a trailer and hooked up to a loudspeaker system that blasted the local community with a special selection of Christmas carols sung by some angelic choir. Well, they might have sounded angelic if the sound system enabled clarity of sound as well as volume. I think many people donated, more to get us off their front doorsteps as fast as possible so that the sound would disappear more quickly round the corner into the next street, than because they thought the singing especially wonderful. But I was always struck by the warmth (mostly) of the smiles of those who chose to open their front doors and share a couple of words of encouragement as we stood there shivering in our duffle coats, woolly hats and scarves waiting for them to fetch their purse.
Coming home after an evening spent trailing behind a rather loud Christmas tree or gathering forty lifeboat collecting boxes to be sent off to the charity felt good. Encouraging children to develop a sense of altruism by perhaps donating a toy to the Christmas appeal at a shopping centre or spending time over the Christmas period helping out with serving lunch to the homeless or disadvantaged helps to develop empathy, a very human trait.
Social connection boosts generosity.
While that annoying phone call in the middle of dinner may get a less than charitable response, what determines our choice to donate or buy a couple of raffle tickets is the strength of connection to the person asking.
That’s why when a friend tells you he or she has just signed up to shave their head, cycle 750 kms or sleep outside in the middle of winter we are much more attuned to donate and to a greater level than that anonymous person in a call centre.
It’s that sense of connection that makes us feel happy. We give because of it. It’s much harder to say no to a friend, because we don’t like to be seen as mean or stingy. And because emotion is contagious, sharing a positive emotion creates that ripple effect for more positivity. That’s why if you’ve shouted someone a coffee or a friend paid for your lunch you’re more likely to continue to see opportunities to do a good deed for someone else.
That’s why paying it forward works so well.
It builds social capital.
Work done by John Helliwell and colleagues from the University of British Columbia has shown how the level of social trust in a community determines our collective happiness and resilience in the face of crisis. Sticking together in times of trouble, helping each other out whether sharing food, blankets or volunteering benefits us all. Togetherness builds not only happiness; it brings out the best of human behaviour and assists in reducing associated stress or anxiety. Altruism contributes to the core fabric of a society.
Can we build greater altruism in others?
While it’s tempting to play with the idea of slipping something into the drinking water to stimulate greater altruism and empathy in society as a whole, neuroscientists have been busy examining whether it is possible to help build empathy in those who have been exposed to desensitising situations such as being incarcerated in prison or at war. Their findings so far are encouraging. In one study the scientists used a non-invasive procedure called theta-burst Transcranial Stimulation to selectively numb brain activity in certain brain areas. Reducing brain activity in this way showed how this increases generosity by increasing ability to feel for others.
While zapping a little extra transcranial stimulation may not be appropriate in the normal workplace, this does show that developing prosocial behaviour is something we can work towards, and according to neuroscientist Donald Pfaff in his book the Altruistic Brain “we have the brain circuitry that allows us to be sensitive to what others are thinking and feeling, to empathise with their suffering to care for their welfare, and to translate that information into compassionate action.”
In other words, far from being wired to be selfish, we are “born to be good.”